Newsreal: The lion in winter

With Nelson Mandela set to pass from the scene, South Africa faces a brighter, if less exciting, future.

Published December 17, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Even for a nation given to grand drama, South Africa has provided some extraordinary theater these past few weeks. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's 10 days before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had South Africans glued to their television sets and newspapers, absorbing every macabre detail of the murders and beatings in which Winnie was deeply implicated.

Despite the parade of witnesses who testified in damning detail to the commission, there were a number of players who didn't make it to the stand: African National Congress supporters, white liberals and scores of foreign and local journalists who had witnessed, close up, Winnie's self-immolation during the late 1980s but had refrained from speaking out. Last week, they muttered quietly to each other over telephone calls and coffee dates.

"It was impossible. You spoke out against Winnie, you got branded pro-apartheid," one seasoned black journalist said privately after the hearings ended. "You know, there were always two parties in South Africa: apartheid and anti-apartheid."

On Tuesday, the next act of the drama -- and a climactic one -- opened, when the ruling ANC, which took over from the National Party, began its national conference in the town of Mafekeng, about 250 miles south of Johannesburg.

The conference marks the last, short chapter of the Mandela era, an epic tale that has shaped our notion of South Africa since the 1960s. Nelson Mandela, 79, will step down as ANC leader, the penultimate step before his complete retirement in 1999. Although he remains South Africa's president until then, the real power turns over to Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's deputy, the only candidate to succeed him as party leader. Since there's no serious competition for the ANC's hold on government, Mbeki, barring an accident or worse, is certain to become president in 1999.

Less certain, and more fraught with danger, is who would become Mbeki's ANC deputy, and thus deputy South African president in two years. A hard-fought political battle has been waging behind the scenes, revolving largely around Winnie Mandela's lunge for the job. She fought for it with awesome bravado, even through the days of damning testimony, until calls from the party's leaders to her supporters finally nudged them into withdrawing her nomination. Her chutzpah unbowed, she opened the Winnie Mandela and Family Museum that weekend, in the Mandelas' former Soweto house, where many of the crimes were committed, with commemorative bottles of Mandela garden soil on sale.

Further behind the scenes, other candidates for deputy party leader were quietly edged out by ANC officials, and reportedly by Mandela himself, who placed key calls to local leaders urging them to support Jacob Zuma, the only candidate for deputy.

Although much of this might sound like inside baseball, the ANC conference will craft a new generation to lead Africa's best hope for democracy. The ANC itself realizes how much is at stake in the way it elects officials: Many weeks before the conference, it published on its Web site a document urging its members not to engage in back-door deals, which "would degenerate into debilitating contests which divide the movement and divert it from the major task of social transformation." In all its pre-conference documents lay another anxiety -- that party infighting could be "easily exploited by forces of counter-revolution."

In all the hefty pre-conference tomes put out by the ANC, "social transformation" are probably the most critical two words. Nearly four years since Mandela's momentous election, unemployment is estimated to be as high as 33 percent, and far higher for young blacks. The murder rate is about six times the rate of America's; whole areas of the cities have become virtual no-go zones after dark. The rand has shrunk dramatically against major currencies since Mandela came to power. The election promise of building a million new homes within the first five years now seems an unattainable fantasy.

For all the problems, no other party seems close to threatening the ANC's primacy. Of course, without Mandela as the country's living inspiration, the "forces of counter-revolution" -- from the left or the right -- might start to look more attractive. However, paradoxical as it may seem, there is fresh hope for South Africa with Mandela's departure. The country can now cease being the world's favorite morality tale and get down to the brass tacks of creating a new society.

Mbeki, whose father, Govan, was Mandela's jailmate and friend, has the reputation of a sharp operator. He has little time for those who show him less than total loyalty. But he's also energetic and well-connected abroad, having been schooled in England and lived almost all his adult life in exile. Perhaps best of all, he can run the country as a politician, rather than a mythic historic figure, tackling head-on the immense social and economic problems without having to satisfy the world's huge expectations.

That might make South Africa a more boring, and normal, country after Mandela leaves the scene. But for romance, you can visit Mandela's jail cell on Robben Island, now a national landmark. Or you could buy your very own bottle of Mandela garden soil in Soweto, where the legend began.

By Vivienne Walt

Vivienne Walt is a frequent contributor to Salon. She was recently on assignments in Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran.

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